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Panel Discussion with David Shambaugh and Willy Lam

This week in Beijing 2,300 delegates gathered for the 19th congress of the Communist Party of China. A particular focus is on party leader Xi Jinping. The question of how and to which degree he will further cement his power was the focus of a panel discussion on September 28, jointly organized by MERICS and the Robert Bosch Foundation. Willy Wo-Lap Lam, Professor of China studies and History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the American China expert David Shambaugh from the Elliott School for International Affairs at George Washington University discussed five years under Xi Jinping and analyzed the possible trajectory of China’s development. The event was moderated by Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Director of the Research Area on Public Policy and Society at MERICS. About 150 guests attended the event at the Berlin office of the Bosch Foundation.

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For Lam there is no doubt that Xi Jinping will use the party congress to further consolidate his position: Xi was not only a charismatic politician but also had Machiavellian features, he said. "He knows how to effectively form alliances and marginalize his enemies." Lam also stressed that Xi will have no problems getting his proteges and allies into the new Central Committee, the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee. The only open question for Lam is this: How big is Xi’s majority in the powerful Standing Committee going to be? Besides, the Hong Kong scholar assumes that Xi will enshrine his ideas about party and state in the Communist party constitution as "Xi Jinping Thoughts." This would make Xi the only leader since Mao Zedong who within his lifetime managed to incorporate his political visions under his own name in the party’s constitution. Consequently, this would further cement his role as the most powerful leader in China since Mao. 

Neither expert expects a substantive change of course at the party congress. David Shambaugh: "Everything is planned meticulously, nothing will be left to chance." The congress would most likely be a "Xi Jinping show." In his assessment of the last five years under Xi’s rule, Shambaugh didn’t mince his words: Xi had not significantly advanced the country, he said.

The on-going anti-corruption campaign and Xi’s centralist style of leadership had put the army, the party and civil society "under stress." Besides, he had broken with many political approaches of the Deng Xiaoping era, including collective leadership and a technocratic political approach. Xi's policies had led to a political “freeze” Shambaugh criticized. In the CCP, "there is no life, it is an organism in which the blood does not circulate."

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And yet, the one-party system was far from collapse, the experts stressed. One should not underestimate the ability of the CCP "to muddle through," Lam said. Shambaugh added that the system had become “more brittle” and was in a “state of atrophy” but not close to disintegration. 

Both experts also see massive challenges in the economy. Even though Xi wanted to establish China as a "global innovation leader", long-term and sustainable concepts were missing, they said.China is investing heavily in areas such as high tech, robotics and IT but success was by no means guaranteed. While Lam recognized partial achievements in the fields of artificial intelligence or robotics, he believes that the current economic growth rates are not sustainable as they are based on rapidly increasing public debt. In addition, state-sponsored innovation also had clear limits, he observed. Ultimately, the political structures in China were an obstacle to real innovation.

There was just one policy area in which both China experts were somewhat more lenient in their assessment of Xi: foreign affairs. Xi cut a good figure on the international stage, they said. China had constructively contributed to global governance, Shambaugh acknowledged. Lam added that Xi had benefitted from the current weak position of the USA: "Donald Trump is a blessing for Xi.” Nevertheless, China continued to face enormous challenges in international relations, for example managing its massive investments overseas, many of which are part of Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative .”

At the end of an hour of intense discussions both experts were asked for personal recommendations to young Chinese. David Shambaugh gave economic advice to the whole country, which can be summarized as "be brave and open up." Willy Lam took a stance for liberal and democratic principles. His advice to young Chinese: "Do not let Xi Jinping and the propaganda of the Party apparatus discourage you, instead go forward with this seemingly more difficult, but eventually more rewarding path."

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